Words by Andrew Fetter
Unwed Sailor’s album Heavy Age was one of my favorite records from last year. Getting to talk with Johnathon Ford about what went into making that record and the impact it had on him as a musician and a person was such a thrill.
So, as I was recently talking to Ford about Unwed Sailor’s follow up record, Look Alive, it felt like we were just picking up the conversation where we left off a year ago, even though the world has changed so much in that time.
Off Shelf: How are you doing with this crazy new world we’re living in?
Johnathon Ford: I’m good. As I’ve gotten older I tend to stay in a lot, so I kind of social distance normally anyway. I spend a lot of time at home listening to music, reading, watching movies. So that side of things hasn’t affected me too much. I have been running quite a bit. There’s a pretty awesome park, sort of in the middle of nowhere. It’s in a town called Sand Springs [Oklahoma]. And there’s never anyone out on the trail, so I go and run.
Of course on the musical side of it, cancelling tours has affected me quite a bit. I’m getting by, though. I haven’t gotten sick. Nobody I know has gotten sick and they’re all taking it pretty seriously. And Tusla is one of those places that has closed bars and restaurants. But it’s also a pretty conservative area of the country to where we definitely have a lot of people battling the stay at home orders. But I just do my own thing and stay safe.
OS: I watched the video for the title track for the song “Look Alive” and it immediately drew me in. The imagery of it is really striking, and in the context of the song especially. How did the idea for the video come about?
JF: You know, that song was a challenge for me from the beginning. It starts with this chugging monotonous bass line, and I thought “what is this and what does it have to do with Unwed Sailor? How can I write a song out of this?” So then there was the added challenge of how to make a music video for it. And then it instantly hit me that it should be about modern dancing. I started thinking about the meaning behind the song which is just pure self-expression, being who you are with nothing holding you back. And the best way to visualize that, to me is modern, free form dancing.
I was introduced to Ari Christopher, who dances in the video. And that’s what she does, she just hears something and then instinctively moves to what she hears. We found this venue in Tulsa called The Starlight and they have this great dance room that’s almost like a cave. No light comes into it at all. So we just set up the lighting there, and there’s this silvery streamer backdrop. So as we were setting up and getting the initial camera shots, I felt like it started to have a David Lynch feel to the imagery of it.
What usually happens with Unwed Sailor is these things just start creating themselves and taking us on the ride. So I wanted a mysterious, freedom of expression vibe to the video. And I also thought the dancing is great, but can we really do that for six and a half minutes? So then I started thinking of visuals from the 80s. Those music videos where they do closeups of the instruments. And I don’t know where I got that from specifically, but it popped into my mind. So we shot my hands playing different instruments with all this moody lighting. I think all of that together (the dancing, the David Lynch vibe and 80s music video nostalgia) it accompanies and expresses the music really well.
OS: See, I’m racking my brain trying to think of where it might have come from too, but I can’t place it. But I know what you’re talking about.
JF: [Laughs] Yeah, and I’m so heavily influenced by the 80s. It’s like a lifeblood to me. To me, there are no cheesy aspects of that era. I don’t buy into that. I just love that decade. I grew up in that decade, and it was a huge time in my life discovering music and skateboarding, culturally it was just huge. There are so many 80s references just burned into my brain, they can’t help but come out when I’m creating something. It influences everything I do on a creative level.
OS: Well, and when you listen to the song on its own, those influences pop out almost immediately. That bassline has a great punk/new wave vibe to it.
JF: And that just came out of nowhere. Both that bassline and “Glaring”, I wrote those basslines and just thought “where did this come from?” This is not what I normally write for Unwed Sailor. But it’s what was coming out, so I went for it. As the songs started morphing, it very quickly started to become that “Unwed Sailor sound”. It made more sense, I started hearing the New Order influence. Their album Substance was a huge influence on “Look Alive”. The structures on those songs are kind of like a ride or a journey. And it just never slows down.
OS: This is a year after Heavy Age was released, which as you put it was heavily influenced by some hard times in your life. Would you say that Look Alive is a continuation of that story in a way?
JF: Absolutely. It’s as if now the light at the end of the tunnel has exposed itself. It’s almost like Heavy Age was a cocoon and Look Alive is the butterfly. It’s about self-expression and finding answers after questioning yourself. Feeling more secure in who you are, in your creativity, just that pure expression. Realizing who you are and being okay with it.
Back when I lived in Seattle I would go to this club called Neighbours on 80s night and just dance for 7 hours to 80s music. It was everything to me. I still to this day have the fondest memories of that. And I remember how alive I felt. And I think that definitely influenced the dance elements of the record. It’s meant to make you feel alive. No matter who you are, if you get up and dance, it’s going to change something in your mind. It’s going to change who you are in that moment, and you’re gonna feel good. You might feel dumb at first or insecure. But there’s going to be this moment where something clicks and it all comes together. And all you’re going to think about is how good you feel and how alive you feel.
That was an idea that I wanted to get across through the music. And there’s also a melancholy feel to it. At least for me there was. Thinking back on Neighbours on those moments when I was around 300 people on this dance floor. Just having the time of my life. I look back on that and there’s a melancholy to it or nostalgia to it. And I wanted that to come through too. Kind of this emotional pull. For me, I love nostalgia and melancholy. It’s not a bad thing to me. If anything those help me feel alive and they inspire me.
OS: When I first saw the title of the record and hearing you now talk about nostalgia, it brought to mind when I was playing little league baseball. And every time another kid came up to bat, our coach would yell out “Look Alive!” Obviously that might be a different interpretation of what you were going for, but in a way I guess it makes sense.
JF: Oh wow, that’s interesting. But in a way, it’s exactly what I’m saying. You’re walking up, you’ve got this moment, to fully be who you are and to have confidence in yourself to express yourself. And if you’re second guessing yourself or not fully believing in yourself, then you falter. But trust in who you are. Swing the bat and hit the ball. It’s basically the same idea.
OS: On “Haze”, the final song on the record, you incorporated singing, which is not very common in Unwed Sailor. But there weren’t lyrics necessarily, just the human voice as another instrument that blended in with the rest of them.
JF: “Haze” was a song that came much more quickly. It was influenced by Twin Peaks and New Order, going back to those two again. It was the first Unwed Sailor song that I played every instrument on. Which was a big deal for me. I’ve always wanted to do that but didn’t have the confidence. And “Haze” for me felt like the song to do that. So with that in mind, adding vocals made sense. Because this is 100% me in every way possible. Playing every instrument, every note, it’s that personal. It freed me up to put my voice in it.
OS: So did the song take shape differently than other Unwed Sailor songs do when you’re playing with other people.
JF: Not really, because with Unwed Sailor, I’m the producer. I mold the structures and put the songs together. So it was the same, the difference was I was just going for it with each part. Even if it’s uncharted territory, I’m going to do it, instead of just producing it. So for me it was about challenging myself. It’s important for me to be challenged. And also to challenge Unwed Sailor fans. I don’t want to put out the same record every time. I wouldn’t even know how to do that.
OS: That’s a trap that a lot of bands in that genre can easily fall into.
JF: Right, and for years I’ve tried to figure out what genre Unwed Sailor even is. I know it’s instrumental, but is The Marionette and the Music Box an instrumental rock record? Or is it a new age or ambient record? Is Look Alive a punk record. I guess Post-Rock would be a foundational genre. What I hear a lot in that though is Explosions In The Sky and I don’t think Unwed Sailor really does that. Actually it would help me a lot if someone could tell me what type of band we are. It would be super helpful [laughs].